I’m to spoil the living hell out of Phoenix Alexander’s “Gennesaret,” which I just finished over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you’re like me and haven’t read this story from March, you’re averse to spoilers, and if you aren’t triggered by violence to children, go read it first. Otherwise, I’m about to prattle on.
What’s enthralled me and simultaneously left me queasy about this story is the way in which it keeps re-framing its central questions, and what that does both to me as a reader and to the story itself as an exploration of humanity and the politics of humanity.
It starts simply enough. For a value of simple that involves a lizardlike variation on Homo sapiens. By simple I mean, we have Alissha and Ibliss taking two sides of a debate: do you suppress what makes you unique, or do you embrace it?
It’s a question immediately reframed and complicated by a local disaster which threatens the very lives of their people. Cultural expression here may or may not have a cost: Ibliss believes the only way to get aid for the situation is for everyone to look “civilized,” hiding or completely removing all the physical parts of themselves that don’t look like what those in power on the other side of the water consider human.
Alissha thinks the only way to gain the help of others, though, is to be all the things Ibliss thinks they fear. Culture and heritage are what makes them strong, and what’s worth saving, right?
This alone, this question of what counts as civilized, of what counts as human, of who decides and why they get to decide is already heady and painful (especially when Alissha and Ibliss’s child is caught in the middle).
On the surface the answer here seems hard but obvious, so when Alissha makes a run for freedom, it feels like: okay here is where we’re going. Except not. Because Alissha faces direct violence on the opposite shore even as she runs for safety, at which point: hell, am I supposed to be satisfied with a world where Ibliss was right?, where the only means of survival is to literally cut pieces of yourself off in order to pass for what the current power structure agrees is human?
And just when I’m feeling horrified and distraught and thinking how horrible Those People are for what they’ve done to Alissha and all the people she represents, that’s when the story reframes again. Just like Alissha, I don’t have the option to stop, which means I run full force into the climax of this piece, which isn’t a hail of gunfire.
Here is perhaps the greatest trick the story pulls. Because it traded on my reactions, on my hopes, on my desire to believe that humanity can be better and that people who think like me are that hope. I invested, and then:
Alissha finds a place for sanctuary, but it’s with folks who — while touting their sympathy at the horrors of all this, of the ways in which Alissha has been de-humanized — continue to do exactly that. It’s a horrible sort of twisted mirror, as the question of Alissha and her son’s status becomes more important than the humanity which that status fails to reflect, as their suffering becomes more important than their lives.
Because, while they convince themselves of how deeply they feel this Other’s pain, Alissha’s ‘saviors’ relish that pain’s value for the political changes they can work with it. A couple cry into each other over the tragedy they’ve witnessed, the heartless acts of their opponents, and fuck if I don’t feel exposed, if the very story doesn’t feel like it’s broken its chest open to expose its innards and force the reader to question everything.
I’m still sort of wobbly about how to reconcile it all, to be honest. Is my reading the story just another self-satisfied couple having a good cry while someone else dies? Hell, is all the worrying about I’m doing in the mechanisms of the story an action or an inaction?
I don’t think there’s meant to be an easy answer, of course, but the unease of that is surely a thing I can’t quite shake. Is it vapid to applaud that?